Mahatma Gandhi, the brains behind the statement, “to give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them’’, was an active civil rights leader during the British rule in India. He was assassinated in 1948 in New Delhi. Mahatma Gandhi abhorred the Indian treatment and the British influence on the culture of Indians during this period. He saw in the Britons a civilization than belittled his own people; he was convinced that Indians would do just fine in the absence of the Britons and that learning a new language was not necessarily of any benefit to the Indians. Learning the English language was meant to help enforce the British rule, and not help improve the condition of living of the Indian people. The methods used by the British government at that time may not have been sane but, in the long run, the introduction of the new language has immensely aided the Indian civilisation. In the wake of globalization, I do not concur with Gandhi’s opinion since, the English language, having stood the test of time, is vital especially when accessing the internet, education, during correspondence, travel, and interstate communication.
To begin with, the English language is essential to India because of its wide utilization during official communications. India has an estimated 415 native languages (Kachru 242). This insane number of dialects would have made it quite cumbersome for people working within the same office to communicate with each other. While a good part of the Indian working population have a fairly good grasp of the English language, most of them only understand their mother tongues and/or the language commonly spoken in their states (Kachru 242). The introduction of the English language in India meant that the Indian people can communicate in their offices without the need for a plethora of translators having to translate every time that a meeting is convened or when a received letter dictates that an immediate action be taken. Effective communication is key for the success of any organization. The objectives set by any organization heavily rely on good communication among the employees, and most importantly, the language barrier between them needs to be corrected. The distortion of information that occurs during translation can be avoided by using a common language during office communications (Kachru 242). English language has helped bring order where there would otherwise be chaos. Imagine the magnitude of losses that would occur if one staff member was to misinterpret just one message. If a staff member was to misinterpret an order of perishable goods like bread or roses, and then before the management realizes this error the goods have been left the storage. By the time these goods are recalled, they may have perished or depreciated in value. Many people would lose their jobs by the day.
Secondly, one can never overstate how essential the English language is in the life of the Indian students, and in the life of other students in other parts of the world. Most of the courses being taught are taught in English. It is easier for one to identify and pursue a course being taught in English than it is for one to identify and pursue one being taught in their first language. In fact, it is almost impossible (Kachru 244). Many books have been written in English and for one to abolish the English language simply because the people who introduced it were somewhat brutal while they were at it would not only be juvenile but also a Sisyphean task. Students can study in any English speaking country of their liking simply because they have an understanding of the language. Many scholarships also require that the beneficiaries have an understanding of the English language for them to qualify. The opportunities of the students have been magnified due to their understanding of the English language. It would, therefore, be inaccurate to suggest that the English language has enslaved the Indian people, or any other student who uses English as a second language (Kachru 242). Non-native English speakers have benefitted and still continue to benefit from the use of this language and to claim that they are enslaved by it would need one to cease and desist from the use logic.
Moreover, the diplomatic ties between many countries have been improved due to the introduction of the English language. India is a good example of a country that uses English for official communications, especially when communicating with other English speaking countries (Kumaravadivelu 545). The constant intercourse between a developing country like India and other developed countries is important especially when it is geared towards making the less developed country a more prosperous country. They will benefit from the aids awarded to them by the developed countries. The scholarships that were previously mentioned are commonly only awarded to countries that are in good relations with the donor countries. The students who get a higher quality of education will help develop their home countries after they graduate. Developed countries like the USA have been known to assist in the development of infrastructure in the less developed countries. Some countries also send their citizens to work in India and other states in their embassies and other development programs like the USAID. Such programs are more likely to prosper in the ambiance of good relations and healthy diplomatic ties. Wars can be avoided simply by maintaining good relations with other states. Countries are always stepping on other countries’ toes but through communication, arbitration is facilitated and bloodshed is avoided (Kumaravadivelu 545).
Finally, the English language has helped boost both local and international tourism in India and other countries in the world. When tourists visit a country, the language barrier may make their stay in the foreign countries very uncomfortable (Sussex 123). To gain access to products and services, the consumer and the seller must agree on the price of the products. This may prove to be a tall order in the event that the two parties do not speak the same language and more expensive for the buyer if they have to hire a translator. The English language has helped boost tourism in English speaking countries by improving the quality of the experiences while lowering the cost. In India for example, certain states speak specific native languages. In the absence of a common language, a local tourism intending to tour a different state may be discouraged when they find out that there will be nobody there who will understand their discourse. English acts as a link that connects states to both other states and to the rest of the world (Sussex 123).
Critics would argue that by introducing people to English as their second language, their understanding of their own culture will be distorted. They might lose their own cultural identities and be completely assimilated (Sussex 123). Some continue to say that driving out the imperialists has not guaranteed us ultimate freedom. Dropping the ideologies and language that they forced down their throats is the only way to guarantee real freedom. Gandhi experienced first-hand the brutality of the colonialists. Having to give up your land and everything that you stood for or would otherwise kill for is an experience no one would ever wish on their worst enemies. Therefore, there exists a basis for understanding as to why some people, especially the conservatives, would want to shun everything the European settlers brought with them, including the English language. But are these not mere vicious and ad hominem attacks aimed at the colonialists? Such small scale passive aggression solves nothing.
In summary, based on the importance of the English language to both the Indian population and the rest of the human population that uses English as their second language, it is inaccurate to claim that to give millions knowledge of English is to enslave them. This position does not in any way show support for the inhumane practices adopted by the colonialists. Enslavement means that the slave has no say whatsoever in how they are being treated. They are regarded as animals and their fates depend on the sanity of their masters. But is this really the case in India at the moment? Don’t they have the right to vote and abolish the use of the English language during official, social, academic, or diplomatic communications? But due to the great advantages accrued to the use the English language, children are being introduced to the English language at very tender ages. We should not abandon our cultures, or where we came from, but we should also not be oblivious to what is good in other peoples’ cultures. Suggesting that something is bad in totality just because the people that presented it to us mishandled us in one way or another would be extremely irrational.
Kachru, Braj B. "The English language in the outer circle." World Englishes 3 (2006): 241-255.
Kumaravadivelu, B. "A postmethod perspective on English language teaching." World Englishes 22.4 (2003), pg. 539-550.
Sussex, Roland. "DAVID CRYSTAL, English as a global language. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 150." Language in Society 28.01 (1999): 120-124.